Bookbinding has always fascinated us here at Paperblanks, and for more than 20 years we have been mesmerized by the ancient art of bookmaking and its history. Imagine our delight when we came across the bookart work of Rachel Hazell and her inspiring photos of life on the Isle of Iona on the west coast of Scotland. The author of the bestselling Bound believes that everyone has a book inside them, and through her bookbinding workshops she strives to bring those unique artworks into the world. Join us to learn more about Rachel’s work, her creative inspiration and the joy of gathering unique pieces that become art.

1) How did you get into bookbinding? 

As a reader and lover of libraries, bookshelves, the smell of book shops and stationery, the path to bookbinding was a winding one: torn between art college and university, I studied English Literature at Edinburgh University. By the end of the course, I became as aware of the object I was holding in my hands, as the subject and content of the pages. My stepfather sent a newspaper clipping advertising a weekend workshop, and that was the beginning. We marbled sheets of paper, folded, marked, stitched and glued. I was smitten. An HND in the craft of bookbinding and a Masters in Bookart followed.

2) Why The Travelling Bookbinder

For over twenty years, I’ve been teaching round the world, from Antarctica to Amsterdam, Venice, Paris, Stockholm…remote islands and inner cities. Packing all the tools and materials required for the workshops often meant rather heavy luggage. Online classes have run since 2014 with the PaperLove e-course, then BookLove – both featuring a well-worn leather suitcase full of treasure. Now virtual Gathering retreats make it possible to bring together an international audience. 

Photo courtesy of Rachel Hazell

3) What do books, words and the power of imagination mean to you?

Freedom! The ability to express your story, in whatever form that takes, be it postcards, inky script, paper sculpture, a series of envelopes or more conventional book structures – there are myriad ways to describe or document experience – is transformative. The pleasures of combining literature and art are endless. The book is such an iconic object, and human history is dependent on paper, so books, words and imagination are my life blood!

4) Were you a creative child growing up?  

I’d say bookish rather than creative, with many hours spent colouring (keeping inside the lines, naturally), weekly trips to the library and reading under the bed covers after lights out. Growing up in Somerset meant piles of apples and other produce for sale at the roadside – I wanted to sell the very rudimentary little books I’d made there too. The computer-generated careers advice at school came up with two apparently contrasting suggestions – librarian or the glamour industry. I’d like to think that teaching bookart around the world could be interpreted as a combination of both!

Gathering Retreat. Photo courtesy of Rachel Hazell

5) Where do you find inspiration?

Landscape and materials are the starting point, depending on where I am, and what is to hand. For example in Paris, on the Love Letters workshop, we seek out ephemera from flea markets and jewel-coloured ink from Melodies Graphiques, or exquisite sheets of paper from Calligrane and create uniquely personal books with them. On the Iona Driftwood Binding Retreat, sea-shaped pieces of wood become covers of books filled with content drawn from our surroundings – shells, pebbles, poetry and paint. Inspiration is everywhere, as I’ve learnt to appreciate more fully over the last year and a half. The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker is great.

6) How has your practice changed over time?

My mission has always been to encourage people to tap into their creativity through bookart. Over the last twenty years, this has become more of a priority. I used to exhibit and take commissions, but teaching is most important now. I’m very grateful for the technology which enables me to share the bookart passion. Toast clothing commissioned me to make a couple of projects for their IGTV channel. Staying curious and keeping learning is brilliant – over lockdown I’ve done courses in filmmaking (with Sarah Mason), expressive calligraphy (with Monica Dengo) and cartographic stitch (with Ekta Kaul).

I’ve loved connecting with the women who have taken part in the Gathering virtual retreat – we’ve all gained so much from being creative together. Focusing on the meditative qualities of book-making is so relaxing. Gathering has been such a positive experience over the last eighteen months that they are now a regular addition to my workshop schedule. 

Driftwood binding. Photo courtesy of Rachel Hazell

7) How did you discover your love for teaching?

Finding a way to clearly describe the process of bookbinding, and empowering people to write/paint/collage/make marks etcetera is an endlessly fascinating learning curve. My father was a teacher, so I’m following in his footsteps. I learn so much from teaching, and work on improving methods and delivery, especially in this digital age. 

I miss teaching “real life” workshops, and look forward to the residential Iona driftwood binding course in August (one place has become available) and a purely bookbinding workshop, Three Structures, in Edinburgh in September. Everybody has a book inside them, whether it’s a one-liner or an intricate piece of paper-engineering – I’m committed to bringing them into the world!

Bookart kit. Photo courtesy of Rachel Hazell

8) What is the most rewarding part of teaching your bookbinding workshops?

Seeing a cautious, tentative student realising that they have an aptitude and style all of their own. Anything is possible when expectations are set aside and control is surrendered to play. It’s wonderful to see the transformations that occur outside your usual environment and routines. Staying connected and continuing to grow are indirect benefits.

9) As for your love of travelling, what is your favourite destination? 

It’s been strange being in one place for such a long time and I’m surprised to have found so much pleasure in discovering more of my immediate surroundings. I was fortunate to have spent lockdown on an island. Ah, but Paris is the place I long to visit, for the specialist boutiques, flea market treasure hunting, speaking rusty French and boulangeries, along with the joys of teaching the Love Letters workshop. For now though, the beach, sea, paper, books and ink keep me content.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Hazell

10) In September 2018 you published your book Bound. It must have been very exciting to put together your passion for bookbinding and teaching. Can you tell us more about this experience, from concept to seeing the book in bookstores?

In 2017 an e-mail arrived from Kyle (publishers specialising in craft and cookery) asking if I’d be interested in putting together a book on bookbinding – a dream come true! It was incredible to work with photographer Susan Bell, who made Bound more beautiful than I could have imagined, shot on location in Edinburgh and on Iona. I loved sharing all that I’ve learned about bookbinding tools and materials, working out how to make the instructions encouragingly clear, and how to personalise your books with pattern. The structures develop from ingenious folds to more complex multi-section bindings, progressing in confidence. Launching Bound at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was such a thrill. My heart leaps to see the book in different places, and I’m so grateful to see what people have made and hear how Bound has been a companion through the last eighteen months. It’s been re-printed three times. The Travelling Bookbinder would have to be on the road non-stop to reach so many budding book artists – Bound and online classes have made it possible for lots more handmade books in the world!

Bound cover. Photo courtesy of Rachel Hazell.

BONUS: We’ve started a new tradition where we ask every featured artist to do a shoutout to any contemporary artist that inspires them, as a way of #artistssupportingartists. Please nominate a fellow artist and tell us why you admire their work.

Hannah Nunn. She creates paper-cut lamps, wallpaper, fabrics and window film, with a thoughtful and inspiring work ethic. Love exploring independent business ideas with her, and stretching out on the yoga mat, and sipping tea curled up on a sofa together. And Monica Dengo: The expressive calligraphy and mark making classes taught by Monica Dengo have had a great influence on both my practice and teaching. Her unusual approach has liberated me from writing on straight lines.  

To learn more about Rachel’s work please visit her website, her instagram @paperhazell for bookish island life and @thetravellingbookbinder for workshops, classes and events. Or subscribe to her newsletter for news, reviews, offers and bookart projects.


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